The Right to Know Declaration 2021: Building Back Better with the Right of Access to Information

Endorsed by All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) on 18 December 2021

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This Right to Know Declaration 2021 sets out an action agenda for defence and promotion of the right of access to information. It was developed for and discussed with panellists participating in the celebration of the International Day for Universal Access to Information held on 28 and 29 September 2021 organised by UNESCO. It has subsequently received input from civil society and inter-governmental organisations.

The Right to Know Declaration enumerates the core principles of the right of access to information, and calls governments, inter-governmental organisations, information commissioners, and civil society organisations to act to strengthen access to information laws and to increase transparency in practice.

The Declaration was launched at a side event of the Open Government Partnership Global Summit, on 14 December 2021. It is open for endorsement by civil society organisations, IGOs, governments, information commissioners, academics and other individuals, and will serve as an action agenda for the right to information community for 2022 and beyond.

1. Recalling that the right of access to information is a fundamental human right and is the foundation for resilient and inclusive democracies, for the accountability necessary to ensure the rule of law and good governance, to combat corruption, and for the defence and enjoyment of other human rights;

2. Recalling that the right of access to information is an integral part of the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and “embraces a right of access to information held by public bodies” as affirmed by the UN Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 34 (2011);

3. Considering that this is supported by the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights, and the model laws on access to information of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and of the Organisation of American States;

4. Recalling the recognition of a right of access to information as elaborated in the joint declarations by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, in particular those of 2004, 2006 and 2010;

5. Welcoming the entry into force on 1 December 2020 of the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents, the Tromsø Convention, which is the world’s first legally binding international instrument on the right of access to information;

6. Highlighting that international and comparative standards on the right of access to information establish a series of core elements of this right, including that:
– The right of access to information includes a right to request and receive information, with only limited exceptions, and places an obligation on governments to publish information proactively;
– It is a right of everyone without the need to provide reasons for requests, requesters should be provided with assistance, and access should be provided as rapidly as possible;
– The right applies to all information held by all public authorities, including the executive, legislative and judicial branches, national, regional and local authorities, as well as all bodies owned or controlled by the government, and natural or private bodies that perform public services or exercise public functions, or operate largely with public funds;
– Exceptions are limited by the principles of legality, legitimate purpose, and democratic necessity, must always be subject to harm tests and public interest overrides, and that reasons for refusals must be provided to requesters;
– There should be guaranteed access to independent, rapid, and inexpensive review of failures to comply with the right of access to information, through independent oversight bodies and by a right of access to judicial review, including to the highest courts.

7. Welcoming that 58 constitutions globally explicitly recognise a right of access to information from public authorities as a fundamental right, and a further 26 countries derive this right from constitutional protections of freedom of expression and/or other language in the constitution;

8. Welcoming, also, that there are 136 countries in the world with laws that set out the mechanisms for exercise of this right, known as access to information laws or transparency or freedom of information laws, or similar;

9. Recognising that the right of access to information is also vital to developing a free, independent and pluralistic media, as well as more generally to fostering healthy information ecosystems;

10. Underscoring that the right of access to information is essential to strengthening the capacity of those working to counter misinformation and disinformation, combat hate speech, promote intercultural understanding, and fight radicalisation and violent extremism;

11. Affirming that transparency at all levels of government can deliver the information necessary to help societies build back from the global Covid-19 pandemic in a way that better protects health, reduces inequality, delivers participatory governance, enhances respect for human rights, and protects and promotes civic space;

12. Emphasising that a well-informed and empowered public is necessary to address the pressing challenge of the climate emergency, and that the right of access to information can contribute to a just climate transition;

13. Stressing the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), noting that access to relevant information is essential for evaluating progress on the Agenda 2030, and highlighting that Goal 16 of promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies includes, as target 16.10, the aim to “ensure public access to information” and that SDG Indicator 16.10.2 evaluates the “number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information” and that UNESCO is the custodian agency for this indicator;

14. Underscoring the importance of access to information in promoting inclusive societies free of discrimination and in advancing gender equality, as emphasised, inter alia, in the Finlandia Declaration of 3 May 2016 on “Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms – This Is Your Right!”;

15. Highlighting that access to information and to knowledge is central to the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process, which reaffirmed freedom of expression and access to information as part of the ambition of achieving inclusive knowledge societies;

16. Noting that scientific knowledge best serves humanity and will best help the world to overcome the global Covid-19 pandemic when it is accessible to all, and welcoming the work done by UNESCO to promote open access to scientific knowledge;

17. Recalling the Political Declaration of the UN General Assembly Special Session on Corruption, held in June 2021, in which UN Member States committed to respect, promote and protect the freedom to seek, receive, disseminate and publish information concerning corruption, and to take concrete steps to ensure that the public has effective access to this information, including by adopting necessary regulations and enhancing bodies responsible for facilitating access to information;

18. Noting the contribution made by in advancing understanding of the right of access to information by independent oversight bodies such as information commissioners and as well as their representative body, the International Conference of Information Commissioners;

19. Highlighting the essential role of civil society organisations around the globe in advancing standard setting on the right of access to information, promoting the adoption and implementation of access to information laws, and, in 2002, establishing the annual 28 September International Right to Know Day in order to raise awareness of and advance compliance with this fundamental right;

20. Celebrating the proclamation of 28 September of each year as the International Day for Universal Access to Information by the UNESCO General Conference in 2015 and by the UN General Assembly in October 2019;

21. Welcoming the role played by other inter-governmental organisations, notably the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development which has placed the right of access to information at the centre of its open government work globally, and by the Open Government Partnership which requires participating countries to increase access to and disclosure of information about governmental activities at every level of government through regular action plan commitments, inculcating a culture of transparency in government.

We do hereby

Call on the government of every country:

1. To commit to upholding the right to know, including through constitutional recognition of the right, and through strong and effective laws that meet international standards;

2. To strengthen existing access to information laws as needed to bring them fully in line with international standards, so as to ensure that everyone has the right to request information from all public authorities, that provision of information will be rapid and comprehensive, and that there are no legal impediments to use of the information so obtained;

3. To ensure full implementation of access to information laws in practice, through both proactive and reactive disclosure of information, conducting training and awareness raising so as to promote a culture of open government throughout all public authorities, including regional and local government, and adequate investment of resources in delivering transparency in practice;

4. To establish and/or strengthen the independent oversight of access to information laws, through bodies such as information commissioners or commissions, which are endowed with the necessary resources, mandate, and investigative and enforcement powers, to promote and protect the right;

5. To ensure that information is created and preserved by developing a strong statutory and policy framework that requires public authorities to create accurate and complete records of their activity, and by setting and enforcing clear rules on record management and the preservation of documents, as well as on archiving, so as to ensure that important information is preserved over time and is accessible in the future;

6. To put in place strong systems for proactive disclosure of information, following a “publish with purpose” approach of prioritising publication of relevant information, which should be determined, inter alia, through consultations with stakeholders and the public;

7. To commit to publishing open data which is easy to find and understand, is complete, detailed, and disaggregated, is regularly and frequently updated, and is made available free of charge, in non-proprietary machine-readable formats, with no or open licences, and with no restrictions on reuse;

8. To digitalise government and administrative processes in order to deliver increased, more immediate, and more efficient transparency;

9. To ensure transparency by design throughout government data collection and information management systems so as to take into account future publication of the information, and anticipating the need to search for and retrieve information, and to separate out personal data and other confidential content;

10. To commit to algorithmic transparency, with a law and policy framework for transparency of use of algorithms and automated decision making, along with data inputs, and to ensure that the public has a right to know when artificial intelligence (AI) is used in decision making by public authorities, in particular a decision that affects an individual, accompanied by a right of review;

11. To open access to scientific knowledge, by supporting the open access publication of scientific knowledge and to provide the financial, legal, and technical support to deliver such access;

12. To deliver transparency to combat corruption by taking specific measures to ensure that information needed to deliver government accountability and to combat corruption enters the public domain. These measures include transparency of finances and spending and of public procurement, along with publication of assets and conflict of interest declarations and of the agendas and meetings of public officials responsible for decision making. Company registration and ownership data, including beneficial ownership data, should be open, and there should be creation of public registers of lobbyists and interest groups;

13. To prioritise climate change transparency by ensuring access to information related to the environment, with a strong emphasis on proactive publication of data from both the public and private sectors, as necessary to permit an evidence-based debate about the current situation on climate change and about measures being taken to address it;

14. To deliver openness related to the Covid-19 pandemic, with a special emphasis on ensuring that information related to the Covid-19 pandemic and the response to it is placed in the public domain as a matter of priority, including but not limited to the publication of health data, of data on vaccines and vaccinations, public procurement of health goods and services, and of data on spending of pandemic response and recovery funds;

15. To open data for development, equality, and inclusion, making a priority of collecting and publishing data related to the Sustainable Development Goals, and the 231 SDG indicators, as well as other data needed to evaluate equality and inclusion, and to publish it in formats that are accessible to all;

16. To advance universal internet access, promoting, as far as possible, universal access to the internet and to ensure that where such access does not exist, other, complementary, means of accessing information are made easily available;

17. To implement programmes of public education and awareness raising on the right of access to information, ensuring that these reach all sectors of society;

18. To promote media and information literacy programmes to support people in developing their capabilities to obtain and use information, and readily to identify misinformation and disinformation;

19. To measure compliance with the right of access to information by collecting comprehensive data on levels of transparency, both through proactive publication and reactive release of information, at all levels of government, as well as on the processing of appeals and legal challenges to requests. To support research into how public information is used by diverse stakeholders and the general public for a range of social benefits (such as accountability and participation), so as to inform improvements in transparency systems. Importantly, to collaborate with UNESCO in measuring the right of access to information in law and practice as part of its role as custodian of SDG Indicator 16.10.2;

20. To engage in international fora that are supporting the right of access to information including in particular the Open Government Partnership, with both its national and local government programmes, and, for those countries that are eligible to join, but have not yet done so, to consider membership of this initiative. Existing OGP members should make ambitious action plan commitments to advance the right of access to information.

Call on UNESCO:

1. To continue to promote the right of access to information as a fundamental human right, necessary for the enjoyment of other human rights, and essential for accountable, democratic, corruption-free governance and sustainable development;

2. To continue to showcase this right on the 28 September of each year on International Right to Know Day, also known as the International Day of Universal Access to Information;

3. To advance the adoption and implementation of access to information laws by supporting governments, other official actors, and civil society organisations at the national level;

4. To increase transparency of inter-governmental organisations by fostering and supporting initiatives to develop rules for accessing information from international and inter-governmental organisations;

5. To strengthen, broaden and deepen the measurement of the right of access to information in law and in practice, as the custodian agency for SDG indicator 16.10.2, and to work closely with governments, other inter-governmental actors, and civil society, to improve their measurement tool so as to gather quality data;

6. To work with other relevant international actors, including the Open Government Partnership, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Conference of Information Commissioners, the Freedom of Information Advocates Network, and other regional governmental and civil society networks, on the promotion and measurement of the right of access to information;

7. To continue to promote open access to knowledge, in particular scientific knowledge.

Call on all Inter-Governmental Organisations:

1. To advance and protect the right of access to information in collaboration with their member governments, UNESCO, other IGOs, and civil society to advance and protect the right of access to information;

2. To recognise that the fundamental right of access to information should apply to all public authorities, including to international and inter-governmental organisations, and so to adopt rules and regulations that deliver strong proactive publication and provide a right to request and receive information that they hold, with only limited exceptions, in line with international standards;

3. To foster and support civil society activity to advance the right of access to information, including by ensuring that there is sufficient funding for civil society transparency work;

4. To act to defend civic space, so that civil society organisations can engage in advancing transparency and using the information obtained without fear of restrictions or reprisals.

Call on Information Commissioners:

1. To assiduously protect and promote their independence, defending against political, budgetary, and other forms of interference;

2. To ensure that their own internal operations are effective and provide a solid basis for the delivery of quality work in all of their areas of engagement, in particular by ensuring that complaints are processed and decided upon in the shortest possible time;

3. To provide support to public authorities to improve implementation of access to information laws, including by providing training to public officials, offering them assistance with challenges they may be facing, and developing guidance, support and model tools and protocols (such as a model protocol for processing requests);

4. To advance the right and work to strengthen national legal frameworks, through their decisions, guidance, and development of opinions and criteria for interpretation, as well as by proposing necessary reforms to law and practice, by commenting on draft legislation which affects the right to information, and by extensive and detailed reporting on progress in terms of implementation of right to information legislation;

5. To collaborate with other national stakeholders, including civil society, the media, parliamentarians, and key public authorities which have a formal role in this area, to promote the right to information in other ways, including through raising public awareness;

6. To collaborate on the regional and global levels with other relevant actors, including inter-governmental organisations, with other information commissioners, with the Open Government Partnership, and civil society networks, on advancing and defending the right to know;

7. To support UNESCO in its task of reporting on progress on the achievement of SDG Indicator 16.10.2, including by collaborating with it on collection of data and conducting analysis of levels of transparency.

Call on civil society, including academia, journalists and business actors:

1. To defend and advance the right to know and to continue to advocate for and monitor the adoption and implementation of access to information laws, as well as national policies and practices that give effect to this right;

2. To continue to raise awareness among policy-makers, journalists and the media, businesses, in particular small and medium enterprises, civil society organisations, and citizens at large and vulnerable groups in particular, about the right of access to information as a fundamental human right and how it can serve democracy and sustainable development;

3. To monitor compliance with the right of access to information at all levels of government, ranging from local authorities, to regional and central government, to international and inter-governmental organisations;

4. To collect and disseminate evidence that showcases the democratic, social, and economic benefits of the right of access to information and of open and transparent governments;

5. To provide guidance and assistance to members of the public seeking to obtain information published proactively and/or to submit requests for information so as to ensure that access to information laws are used and well implemented in practice;

6. To collaborate with and provide advice and training to public authorities, including by collaborating in international exchange of best practices, comparative law and jurisprudence, and lessons learned for overcoming practical challenges;

7. To collaborate with information commissioners on promoting and defending the right of access to information;

8. To undertake assessments of progress on adoption and implementation of access to information laws and of levels of transparency in practice;

9. To engage with UNESCO in the collection of data needed for evaluating progress on SDG indicator 16.10.2;

10. To support transparency at all levels of governance, in particular by supporting the adoption of rules on access to information from international and inter-governmental organisations.